Kentucky's Democratic Senate primary went into overtime Wednesday as the candidates anxiously awaited the counting of absentee ballots to determine who will advance to challenge Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the fall campaign.
After months of voter outreach amid the coronavirus pandemic, the campaigns for Amy McGrath and Charles Booker hunkered down to await their electoral fate.
The suspense could continue until next Tuesday — a week after the election — when county clerks have to submit vote totals to the secretary of state’s office.
“It’s almost like we’re at 7:30 on election night," longtime Kentucky political commentator Al Cross said Wednesday. “And we’re not having election night, we’re having election week.”
All absentee ballots had to be postmarked by primary election day and received by county clerks’ offices by June 27 — the Saturday after the election — to be counted. The state allowed widespread mail-in absentee voting because of the coronavirus pandemic. But in-person voting was also allowed, and many Kentuckians went to the polls Tuesday.
Early results showed McGrath, a retired Marine pilot backed by the party's national establishment, leading Booker by about 4,000 votes in limited statewide returns. They were far ahead of the pack of other Democratic candidates.
On the day after the primary election, both campaigns looked for signs from the slivers of returns that could foreshadow the eventual outcome.
Booker's campaign said it was encouraged by returns showing a tight race. With much of the vote in the state's two largest cities still out, he hopes to benefit from a late surge.
“We feel confident that we are in a strong place to win,” campaign spokesman Will Carle said. “We are overperforming in rural counties and, as early results from Louisville and Lexington show, we are winning in urban areas by large margins.”
Booker, a progressive state lawmaker, seized the momentum late in the campaign amid the national eruption over the deaths of Black Americans in encounters with police. For Booker, who is Black, it amplified his message of racial and economic justice.
McGrath's campaign said it was encouraged by early returns from absentee voting.
“We are energized by the wide margins for Amy that we are seeing from the nine counties that have chosen to report absentee totals so far, and are excited for the rest of the state to fully report in the coming week,” McGrath campaign spokesman Terry Sebastian said.
Her campaign didn't identify those counties.
McGrath, who staked out more centrist Democratic positions, portrayed herself as the party's best choice to challenge McConnell, who is seeking a seventh Senate term. She raised prolific amounts of campaign cash and ran TV ads since last year to lift her statewide profile and bash McConnell.
Booker campaigned on universal health care and anti-poverty programs. His fundraising surged after winning endorsements from national progressive leaders such as Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
After cruising to the GOP nomination on Tuesday, McConnell quickly tried to frame the fall election even before knowing who his Democratic challenger will be. McConnell has relished his role as the Senate gatekeeper to stop legislation sent over from the Democratic House.
“The path to stopping extreme liberal ideas — like the Green New Deal, government-run health care, and open borders — runs right through our commonwealth," he said Tuesday night.